Monday, 20 December 2010

Research: Tom Hunter

 "Publish and be damned!"
-Duke of Wellington-

Being a well raised young man (or at least pretending to be), where possible, I've tried to get permission from the respective photographers I've researched to use their photographs. However, as time marches inexorably toward the end of the course and the panic begins to set in, I've decided to cast my scruples aside and just plow on with things. Should this result in any sort of legal action, I will of course do the right thing...and run away, but your all welcome to come and visit me in Rio!

Like some of my other classmates, I'm going to try and broaden the scope of my research a little. I'll come back to the more relevant stuff at a later date...hopefully!

I've mentioned in other posts that I've always been a fan of street and documentary photography. I'm researching a post about Henri Cartier-Bresson at the minute (thought I'd let you know that, so when Dave inevitably posts one just before I do, you won't think I'm copying;) But before I release that, I thought I'd cover someone I've only just discovered. Whilst flicking through the British Journal of Photography website the other day, I came across this article: Interview with Tom Hunter  I know strictly speaking they're not quite street, or documentary photographs, as Hunter poses a lot of his subjects, but as he uses them to portray life in and around Hackney, it's the closest description I could think of. Besides, one of Don McCullin's most famous pictures, was staged, so if he can get away with it, we can probably cut this guy a little slack.

A lot of this information is in the article, but as I won't get marked for what someone else has written, I'll give you a quick summary of Hunter and how he got in to photography. He was born in Dorset in 1965 and held down several jobs before he became a tree surgeon in Hackney. Whilst there, he was offered an opportunity to work in Puerto Rico with the American forestry commission. Like any sensible person would, he decided to take a camera with him to record his trip, and that's where his love of photography started. When he got back he decided to pursue a career in photography. After attending an a-level class, he then went on to study at the London College of Printing, and eventually gained a masters degree at the Royal College of Art. While studying Hunter had been living in a squat in Hackney, and became disillusioned with the way squatters and other people were always portrayed in a negative light by the press. He decided to use his camera to try and change the way these people were perceived. I think in a lot of ways Hunter can be compared to Diane Arbus. Though his subjects are not in any way "freaks", like Arbus's was dealing with, the squatters were never the less on the fringes of society, often trying to just live their lives, but having to deal with the outside world and it's frequently critical appraisal of their lifestyle.

Hunter decided that in order to alter the perceptions people had, he would need to find a way to show the squatters in a different frame of reference. He hit upon the idea of using classical art to make his point. Whether it was before he shifted his focus from trees to art, or if he discovered them whilst at university I don't know, but Hunter has said the 17th century dutch masters have been incredibly influential on his work. That brings us to the first of his photographs:

Woman Reading A Possession Order, By Tom Hunter

This is the photograph most commonly associated with Tom Hunter, it's also one of the most popular one's he's produced, and I can understand why. Though his later works are often more complex in their ambition and staging, I don't think any of them come anywhere close to capturing the understated beauty and subtle grace this picture has. Taken in 1997 and included in his masters degree show. The picture is part of an eight photo series called persons unknown. It's based on Johannes Vermeer's 1657 painting, "Girl reading a letter at an open window":

Girl Reading A Letter At An Open Window, By Johannes Vermeer.

Filipa was Hunter's neighbour in the squat they lived in. Hackney council had just delivered a letter to everyone in the street informing them they were to be evicted, so the buildings could be demolished. Apparently they played around with the set-up all day. Trying a number of different combinations of props, some of which more closely resembled the original paintings composition, but they eventually decided to replace the fruit with Filipa's new born baby. Although I'm sure there were aesthetic reasons for this choice, I'd assume the main reason for the exchange was Hunters desire to humanise the squatters. He could illicit far more of an emotional response by showing her as a mother just about to lose her home, rather than a simple stereotype.

With regards to the composition, Hunter obviously had certain restrictions he had to work around. The placing and stance of the main subject was fairly well dictated by the original painting, but by replacing the fruit and including her scant possessions in the background, he's added his own twist to the photograph. The fact the baby is looking at his mother also helps to reinforce the familial connection between the two.

The lighting is what really makes the photograph for me. After all the faffing about with props, it was quite late in the day when this photo was taken. This means the late afternoon light rakes across the room, and bathes Filipa in a beautiful glow. This not only allows the viewer to catch the stoic look of acceptance on her face, but also offers fleeting glimpses of little details in the rest of the picture, such as the ringlets in her hair and the metallic sheen of one of the blankets.The strong low light also helps to add texture to the picture. the contrast it creates between the light and shadows makes the folds in her clothes and the pattern of the woolen blanket really stand out.

There isn't a lot of information out there about the equipment used to capture this picture. Clearly the lighting is entirely natural, and there hasn't been any manipulation of the final image. The only information I could find was that he used a large format camera to capture the image and that the exposure was about one second long. I do know a little about the way he finally produced the photograph, but I'll go in to that further down the post, as it's a little complicated.

I think though this is a staged portrait, that doesn't in any way detract from the poignancy of the moment. These are real people who were genuinely being threatened with eviction. Hunter is simply using a different medium to try and alter peoples perceptions. Which worked incidentally! After seeing his photographs the council agreed to meet with the residents and eventually relented on their plans for demolition.

The next picture isn't one of  my favourites, but I think it's a good example of the broad range of Hunters work:

The Way Home, By Tom Hunter

Part of Hunter's thirteen photograph: Life and death in Hackney series. This photograph was taken in 2000 and like the previous picture is based on a famous painting. This time though, it's the 1851-52 Pre-Raphaelite painting by John Everett Millais:

Ophelia, By John Everett Millais

Perhaps, because as a squatter and sometime traveller he felt marginalised at some point himself, he seems to have a deep seeded need to record the events of everyday people who might otherwise be forgotten. So when he heard about a young girl who fell in to a local canal after a party, he was inspired to create this photograph.

I find the composition of this photograph a little strange. In the original, Ophelia is clearly the central focus of the picture. You connect emotionally with her. The viewer is aware that though she'll gradually sink in to the water and drown, her madness has taken away an hint of the danger she might be in, so she remains content to sing her little songs and play with her flowers. In Hunter's picture however, the subject is almost incidental to the whole thing. Tucked away in the bottom half of the picture, she seems to be enveloped by all the foliage. I'm sure Hunter feels the need to provide some context to the setting, but I find all the little buildings and other elements in the background distracting to be honest.

I don't think the lighting works particularly well either. It's flat and devoid of any warmth. Again I'm fully aware that this is supposed to represent a tragic event, so maybe the lighting is supposed to reflect the sombre subject matter, but I just don't like it.

It's completely plausible to suggest I'm missing the point of this photograph and the others in the series, but when you compare it to others Hunter has taken, I just find them...odd. His photo's in the persons unknown and ghetto series, seek to demonstrate the life and vibrancy of the people of Hackney. They might be poor and not operate by the everyday rules others do, but they're happy! This ability to portray people who are often overlooked, in a new and original way, is what drew me to his work in the first place, so these one's just aren't for me I'm afraid.

As promised I'll give you a brief description of the way Hunter produces his final images. Because of his love of large format and pinhole cameras to capture his photographs, he obviously can't just run off a few copies with an inkjet! The process he actually uses, was called Cibachrome, but is now called Ilfochrome (Ilford bought the company.) This is basically a way of transferring picture information from a photographic slide on to paper. You still use a standard colour enlarger to project the images, but rather than use traditional photo paper the sheets used in this system is actually a sort of plastic. The chemical dyes used are also specially selected for their vibrancy, and ability to reproduce colours. The benefits of this process are that the colour reproduction and longevity of the picture is much better than other similar methods.

As usual I seem to have used an awful lot of words, without actually saying anything. I think I might have to come back and rewrite this at some point. I'll probably add a few more photos as well. Still, on the bright side...research post number six! We're getting there folks:)

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